Scientific Innovation | Device to combat water shortages

New inventions and gadgets are often highly anticipated and embraced by the public, but there is no invention so crucial to human life as devices and technology designed to combat environmental and social problems. At the University of Akron in Ohio, researchers are working on a device that is able to collect drinking water from the air. The device captures condensation through tiny polymers. A prototype of the water harvester takes the form of a backpack, making it easier to transport and use.

Every human on earth should have access to fresh and clean water, and these researchers hope to help provide drinking water to those in need, with a particular focus on people living in drought territories. In tropical locations where humidity is high there is more water vapour present in the air, and as a result, a device called a fog catcher is simple to use to transform water vapour into drinking water. In drier climates like in California, fog catchers do not work effectively due to the lack of water vapour in the atmosphere. Water shortages are increasingly extreme in the poorest parts of the world as the planet warms due to climate change.

A professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Akron, Dr Josh Wong, explained that the atmosphere is a major source of water. Native communities living in the dry and high altitude Andes mountains have developed their own innovative methods of capturing water vapour for thousands of years. They often collect dew captured inside cavities in the desert and send it into large tanks, which provides fresh drinking water. This inspired the Ohio research team in the development of their own system.

The team’s water harvester will use nanotechnology to further develop on pre-existing techniques. Electro spinning, whereby nanoscale fibres are formed by the application of a strong electric charge on polymer solution, can produce extraordinarily small polymers (as small as several tens of nanometers across), so an enormous surface area can be compressed into a tiny space. It developed effectively, the team of researchers will achieve the creation of a lithium-ion battery charged resilient and lightweight freshwater harvester. Wong sees this as similar to the systems used by people in the Andes to collect fresh water, but on a smaller-scale with more potential and ease of use through its portability. He compared the approach to wearing glasses in hot weather as when you enter a cool air conditioned room from the heat outside on a summer’s day, your glasses will fog up. It is this fog that can be accumulated at a nano-scale.

There have been a variety of efforts to help with water shortages. For example, the company Water Solutions uses state of the art scientific techniques, with the latest computer software for scientific investigations relating to groundwater development and maintenance. They have installed ponds in locations suffering from droughts to help replenish groundwater.

Similarly, an infiltration pond in California’s has become a testing ground for scientists to refine methods for recharging the area’s depleted aquifer. Groundwater provides over 90 per cent of the water used in the Pajaro Valley, but the water levels inside their aquifers have diminished over the past 30 years. They are working to combat this by identifying potential sites and good conditions for groundwater recharge by monitoring stormwater flow across Santa Cruz.

F&T Water Solutions also developed something called Variable Electro Precipitator. The Variable Electro Precipitator can eliminate contaminants from water through a process called electrocoagulation that standard filtration cannot. Janicki Bioenergy has even created a machine that can extract clean drinking water from human faeces. Bill Gates himself drank water from the machine, which gives it a great deal of credibility.

Although other researchers have worked on the creation of water harvesters and their own techniques to the production of clean drinking water, the Ohio team have said that their product would be more affordable and more easily portable due to its small size. It could take the form of a rucksack, or even be placed onto a mechanical device like a small train on a track so that the water could be collected and then distributed to communities of people in need. If the device is made, the small size will mean that hard labour will be eliminated from the process of water collection and less of a burden will be placed on people in drought suffering regions as the lightweight nature of the product will cause limited physical strain.

As more companies and Universities dedicate entire workforces and research teams to discovering more efficient ways to generate clean water from the appropriately termed ‘thin air’, the perils of climate change including drought can be combatted with techniques perfected over time, even by finding inspiration from methods dating back centuries as the University of Akron did by applying the techniques of indigenous people in the Andes and adding their own advanced spin for the collection of drinking water from vapour in the atmosphere.


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